The Reckoning is a morality tale wrapped in the form of a whodunnit murder mystery set in 14th century England. Nicholas (Paul Bettany), a young priest, is caught in an adulterous affair and flees his parish. He hooks up with a troupe of traveling players headed by Martin (Willem Dafoe). Arriving in a country town dominated by a looming castle, they observe the public sentencing of a deaf mute, Martha (Elvira Minguez, a Cher lookalike), who has been found guilty of murdering a young boy and now will hang.
The acting company has not been doing well with its traditional plays based on biblical stories. Martin wants to stage a drama of contemporary relevance for his audience (a revolutionary idea) and the murder provides the ideal vehicle. He and Nicholas visit Martha in jail where, using mime, she protests her innocence. Martin gains grist for his drama mill and Nicholas is determined to root out the truth of the case.
Mark Mills’ screenplay, based on a novel by Barry Unsworth, complicates the tale with a variety of suspects, red herrings and intriguing political machinations, but he maintains narrative clarity throughout. Director Paul McGuigan (The Acid House) makes the occasional digression (shots of Martin doing his exercises, for example) for the sake of atmosphere, but he sustains an appropriate pacing for what is, after all, not an action flick, but, rather, in the tradition of the historical epic. At the same time, McGuigan’s camera eye is distinctly contemporary with a stylish look that occasionally makes use of the energy of the hand held camera, the extreme closeup, the chiaroscuro of dark medieval interiors lit by burning torches. Mark Mancina’s evocative score adds both to the atmosphere and dramatic tension.
If there is a problem with the film it is in its weighting on the side of plot at the expense of characterization. That Nicholas, whose moral convictions (and political naivete) drive the mystery, has his own weaknesses is known from the storyline, but why he is the way he is and why he did the things he did remain unplumbed. For all that McGuigan lets his camera linger on Bettany’s chiseled features and blue eyes, the complications of the character remain underexplored.
Still, the story is a good one and it’s period setting illuminates a bit of medieval history–the political changes in the air, the challenging of the feudal system. The power of the church and the nobility over a populace suffering from poverty and resigned to "fate" plays nicely to audience resentment of injustice. "Fate," says a corrupt noble in the film, "is the religion of the meek," reflecting a hubris that cries out for comeuppance. He goes on,"Between faith and reason lies the only true God: Power." That’s sufficiently arrogant and cynical to suggest parallels in the current political scene–leaders who deceive their people, vying for ever greater power for their own selfish ends.
With stronger characterizations, The Reckoning might have achieved greater emotional resonance, but as it is, it’s a suspenseful tale, structured to provide some insightful observations into good and evil, justice and injustice, crime and punishment.